AT 22: Is a Peace Church Possible?: The Church's "Foreign Policy" - Work, War, Witness

Final article in a series by Alan Kreider
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 22, Autumn 1999

A peace church is possible! Although Christians have often been wary of peace, peace is at the heart of what our churches are meant to be about. We are passionately committed to grace; if we wish to have biblical priorities we also will be passionately committed to peace. New Testament writers habitually began their letters by coupling these together: “grace and peace” (Rom 1.7, 1 Cor 1.3, etc). What happens when our churches, like those of the New Testament, rediscover this coupling? It changes our theology and way of thinking. It deepens and enriches our churches’ common life – our “domestic policy”. And rediscovering peace transforms our churches’ “foreign policy”: our worship takes on new reality and depth, and our approaches to work, war and witness are opened up to new creativity and hopefulness.

Peacemakers at Work

Most of us – those who are unemployed or at home with children as well as those in paid employment – have the opportunity to work, to invest our creativity, skills and sweat for the good of others. When our churches become peace churches, we discover that we have new things – life-giving things – to offer in our work.

1. We bring peacemaking habits, attitudes and skills. As I noted in my second article, in a peace church where Christians are learning to follow Matthew 18.15ff. procedures, to practise “truthing in love” and to see with “double vision”, a distinctive kind of Christian is formed.1 Such people are humble, because they know they are forgiven sinners; unafraid of conflict, because they believe God can use conflict to bring peace; committed to good speech, good listening and good process; good listeners, who don’t interrupt or compete; people who really believe it is important to see

through the eyes of others as well as themselves. These habits, attitudes and skills are immensely useful in the world. They enable things to happen better. I have begun to collect samples of Christians who in many work situations are peacemakers. An IT consultant from Yorkshire recently wrote to me, “By facilitating dialogue, or acting as a go-between, I was in fact mediating peace and encouraging relationships to develop. God is not only interested in my work, but even in acrimonious business meetings God wants to work through me to establish the values of his Kingdom there.”

2. We bring peacemaking imagination to our jobs. As a result, new possibilities spring to mind. Peace church Christians get new ideas. They are less likely to sit back and be conventional. They believe God is at work in the creche as well as the boardroom, and that God is in the business of peacemaking and thus can change things. So a peacemaking imagination can transform our work, altering the parameters of the possible, and inspir-ing us to try precarious new things. It’s important for peace churches to tell stories of how this has happened. Some are well-known, such as the peace church sculptors who recently created a massive swords-to-ploughshares

sculpture for Judiciary Square, Washington, DC, made of over 3,000 decommissioned handguns. Some have led to major changes in judicial practice, such as the restorative justice procedures that grew out of the hunch of two Canadian Mennonite probation officers that justice involves a restoration of relationships.2 Some, such as the “Empowering for Recon-ciliation with Justice Project” in South Africa, are massive in scope: in the early 1990s the ERJ trained over a thousand people with the skills of mediation and peacemaking.3 Some, such as the quiet efforts of Christians in the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland or of student mediators in schools, are unsung. Nobody involved in these initiatives would say that carrying a peace church vision into the workplace makes things easy. But it brings hope and new possibilities.

3. This can change our vocation. Sometimes we discover that habits, attitudes and skills we are learning in the peace church make trouble in the workplace. Sometimes our bosses or workmates reject the peacemaking imagination we bring to our jobs. And sometimes we realise, with sur-prising clarity, that our jobs are incompatible with our worship of the God of Peace. For any of these reasons, members of peace churches may find themselves retooling for new vocations. A engineer friend of mine, after many years in a defence electronics firm, has enrolled in the MA course in Peace Studies at Bradford University. Dave was a Christian on a journey. He was moved by visiting the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau; he cared deeply about the Yugoslavian crisis and felt unable to do anything about it; he heard God inviting him to a new vision of his life through Isaiah 58.6-9; and he saw peace church Christians doing new things in the area of conflict resolution that gave him hope. Dave is a loss to the electronics industry, but he is now working at something he really believes in – becoming a mediator. He is an example of what happens when the God of Peace works in our lives. God changes us; he may also change our jobs.

War and Violence

A peace church is not necessarily a church in which all members are paci­fist. There will be some pacifists in a peace church; indeed the Mennonites are a peace church in which most members are pacifist Christians. But a peace church is not defined by the pacifism of its members, or by the posi­tions adopted by the church’s central bodies. You don’t become a peace church by making statements! You become a peace church by being genu-inely committed to the gospel of peace, by learning to put peace on the agenda, by trying to live the life of God’s peace together in the church, and by carrying this, as best you can, into all areas of life.

This leads into the world of war and violence. Most of us most of the time are not involved in war (although we may be involved in military-related industry); but many of us are surrounded by violence. Especially those of us who live in cities: fights and muggings are part of our world. How do we cope with violence? Not everyone in a peace church will necessarily agree that they will never, under any circumstances, knowingly inflict lasting psychological or physical harm on another (pacifism); some may feel that in emergencies, when stringent criteria are met, violence is necessary which they must support even by their action (“just war”). But in a peace church everyone will agree: the church must talk about peace, think about peace, work for peace, evangelise peace, and learn the attitudes and disciplines of peacemakers.

1. Reflecting on the Bible. In interpreting the Bible it makes a big difference what presuppositions we bring. If we assume the gospel is a gospel of peace, and if we begin to take risks as a result of this reading, we will make surprising discoveries. For example, it’s not accidental that the Gospels are full of references to crucifixions, tax-collectors, zealots and soldiers. God sent Jesus into a situation of Roman military repression and anti-Roman agitation. Jesus’ teachings and actions, read against this back- ground, give fascinating insights into alternative responses to violence today. Walter Wink’s study of Matthew 5.38-42 has shown that the way to love one’s enemies is not through “non-resistance” (an incorrect reading of the text) but through “nonviolent engagement” – resisting enemies lovingly, surprisingly and imaginatively.4 This exposes the truth of a situation – at times with high humour – without hurting people and invites people to change. When read from a peace church perspective, the “problem pass-ages” – even Romans 13.1-6 – suggest new solutions. These verses are “perhaps the most influential part of the New Testament on the plane of world history”.5 Why? Because rulers and church leaders have used them to force Christians into being obedient citizens who fight wars. But Paul wasn’t urging Christians in Rome to fight for the state if asked; rather he was telling them to believe, apparently against the evidence, that God could use even an oppressive Roman state for good.6 As our churches become peace churches, we can expect the Bible to speak with an authoritative voice, often challenging platitudinous pieties – and bringing us divine revelation.

2. Thinking about violence – and training. Peace churches will be alert to the violence in our society. It’s helpful for Christians to ask themselves: what would you do if someone attacked you? This perennial anti-pacifist question is an important one. Peace churches are natural settings to think about responses to violence.7 Peace church Christians can develop alternative responses to urban violence; they can learn forms of creative, non-violent resistance which can be taught by training and role-play.8 They can tell stories about their experience, developing a fund of unconventional wisdom about how Christians have responded to violence. What violence have our members experienced? How did they respond? What techniques did they find useful? What still needs to be learned? What was the role of prayer in the conflict? The Mennonite Church in North America has published some stories; we need a comparable collection from Britain and Northern Ireland.9

3. Thinking about war in peacetime. Traditionally churches almost never talk about war, except on Remembrance Sunday. Talking about war is painful for many members; they have lost friends and family members and may themselves have been through the trauma of battle. So it’s only when war is about to be declared that Christians begin to talk about war. Then they generally say, with their government, “there is no alternative”, and think and behave like everyone else. Take the widespread assumption of British Christians that they believe in “just war”. But “just war” isn’t a way of reassuring ourselves that the wars our country fights are just; it’s a method of deciding, by carefully developed criteria, in each case whether it is just to wage war, and if so how one can wage war without fighting unjustly.10 This takes a lot of education: how else can Christians discern whether a war is just or not? And the church virtually never equips people to make these decisions. If a peace church is willing to say that pacifism is the norm for its members, this may not be necessary. Otherwise, a church that wants to put peace on its agenda should, at a very minimum, teach its members what the just war criteria are: just cause, right intention, last resort, discrimination (non-combatant immunity), proportion. When our nation’s leaders decide to bomb other countries, church leaders can use these current events as opportunities to teach about just-war thinking. I know of one church whose pastor, in 1998 after the American bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, brought a full-scale model of a cruise missile to church. He asked the children’s meeting, “Was Bill right?” teaching the children (and their parents) to think with just-war criteria. Nobody dozed!

4. Developing a different view of global politics. When you develop the reflex of listening to people you disagree with, it becomes easier to think that most disputes, even those between nations, have two sides – and it becomes harder to think of killing your opponents. So in peace churches name-calling and stereotyping are unacceptable; they are contrary to the community’s basic values. A peace church will stand for justice; but it will not think justice can be secured by violent solutions – e.g., “taking out” the hate figure of the moment. Justice is made through building right personal and economic relationships, not by means of quick military actions.

Danilo, an elderly Serbian Christian, grew up in the only Serb family in a village. Early in World War II his father was killed by a German bomb. His mother became a refugee, wandering with Danilo and his brother in search of food. When the Yugoslav civil war began in 1991, fracturing relations between Serbs and Croats, instead of becoming afraid of the “other side”, Danilo immediately volunteered to work with “Bread of Life” – the Yugoslav Evangelical relief organisation – to help the innocent who were suffering. During the Kosovo crisis, Danilo, concerned by the manipulative behaviour of the Serbian media, said: “Don’t let the media poison your minds. Rather, think concretely; imagine how you would feel if you were an Albanian mother in Kosovo… Don’t become angry at what the media says the other side may have done to us. Instead, remember the Good Samaritan and act concretely to help our neighbours who suffer.” Danilo is a Serb who lets the New Testament shape his approach to his nation’s enemies.11 This isn’t the kind of Serb whom we hear about in the news; and his empathy, and his practice of “double vision” shames most Christians in the UK. When we, like Danilo, learn to think independently and empathetically about war and enemies, we are on the way to becoming a peace church.

5. Action for peace. The life of the peace church isn’t a cop-out in wartime; it’s a ministry of reconciliation, justice and truth. It calls to mind unpopular realities (e.g. the Western “Christian” maltreatment of Middle Eastern Arabs, many of whom are Christians). It also dares to act in repentance and hope. The Reconciliation Walk, in which Western Christians over a four-year period have retraced the steps of the first Crusaders to apologise for the Crusades, is a sample of this. So also is the New Abolitionist movement among American Christians, who remind a world that would rather forget that nuclear weapons have not gone away, and that in this post-Cold War period God is giving the world a “gift of time” in which universal nuclear disarmament is possible.12 Occasionally peace church Christians will act in demonstrative ways, like the prophet Jeremiah, to make a point dramatically – they will be publicly inconvenient and may be arrested for their troubles. The point is not to be dramatic, but to bear witness to the God of Peace in as many ways as possible.

A Witnessing Church

We live in a world that is post-Christendom and post-modern. People do not flock to church because being Christian is good for their career or business, or because peer pressure sweeps them along. Instead, as never before, we are surrounded by a critique of Christianity. Church history shows the Christian faith is intrinsically violent, we are told; and there are New Age alternatives which can wonderfully move us from the violent Age of Pisces to the tolerant, loving Age of Aquarius. Anyway, there are lots of options, each with its own arguments. Why in this world be Christian?

What counts, it seems to me, is demonstration. The question is not: does the church have an alternative message? Nor is it: is the church saying the correct things? Rather the main question is this: is God alive among the Christians, enabling them to live convincingly, interestingly, hopefully? In our post-Christendom, post-modern era, Christian witness cannot be divorced from the way of life of a community that worships the God revealed in Jesus Christ. So how we live matters; what we do counts. The question is not so much does it make sense, but does it work? Does it bring abundance of life – and new possibilities?

In this world the peace church has a special witness that can be important to the entire Christian church, in four areas:

1. The character of our missionary God. The God whom the Bible reveals is a God who has a mission. God, in overflowing love, has a project – to bring wholeness to creation and to reconcile former enemies. God imple-mented this by sending Jesus, living in solidarity with suffering people and embodying and teaching an alternative authority which is just and peace-able. Although Jesus coerced nobody, he threatened religious and political leaders who killed him; God’s mission leads to the cross. But God vindi-cated his Son in resurrection, and poured out the Holy Spirit on those who acknowledge him, so that as the Father sent the Son (in vulnerability, truthfulness, non-coercive love) the Son may also send us, his followers (John 20.21). The result is a people, a “God movement”, that extends the way of Jesus throughout time and throughout the world. This people is a peace church. It is not an end in itself, but an instrument in God’s mission of reconciliation and peace.

2. The character of Christians. Character matters immensely. who we are as individuals and as communities will either be instruments of God’s mission and evidences of God’s character; or we will be impediments of God’s mission – and will give God a bad name. As Marva Dawn has writ-ten, “The vitality and faithfulness of our personal and corporate Christian lives and the effectiveness of our outreach to the world depend on the char-acter that is formed in us.”13 It matters how we live, what our priorities are, how we transact business and what skills we develop. It matters how we are reflexed, how we handle conflict. Because our witness is rooted in our character, this will determine what people think of God (1 Pet 2.12).

This is true of individuals. Our lives pose questions: “That Susan, she tells the truth; I can count on her; she doesn’t always try to win an argument, but she listens and cares about justice. I wonder why.” It is also true of churches, whose common life poses questions: “The Grace and Peace Baptist Church has been useful in our school. They have produced a dispro-portionate number of mediators. They have a self-effacing, non-coercive way of telling the truth. I asked about it, and they said, ‘Well, our church has had a lot of conflict in the past, but God has taught us a lot and we’re very grateful. Are you interested?’ And I am.”

Missiologists such as Robert Warren are recognising this: “We stand faced with a great new opportunity to speak the good news of Christ into our culture by the way we live that truth in the life of the local church… The church is called to be the pilot project of the new humanity established by Christ… Not least is the world looking for models of handling conflict… Conflicts in the church can seem such a distraction from getting on with the real work; but this is the real work. When people come near such a com- munity they will instinctively know how real the relationships are.”14

3. Words, ideas, actions. There is endless scope for the witness of peace churches. Locally, in our schools and places of work, we can emphasise listening and reconciliation, not power plays. When people ask why we have helpfully odd ideas about conflict, we can tell them about Jesus. Nationally, in debates about policy and in letters to MPs, we can write words of caution and sobriety, recalling that violence never produces the results people anticipate and that violence is always self-justifying. We can inject new ideas. In peace churches, where the gospel is preached and the Spirit is alive, new things become thinkable: church members can volunteer to do conflict teaching in school assemblies; they can help apply restorative justice principles to dealing with sexual offenders. Demonstrative actions also become part of the peace church’s witness. At times, working with non-Christians, followers of Jesus can link arms in the chain of witness at Jubilee 2000 or sit in the road at an Arms Bazaar.

Throughout the foreign relations of the peace church, one thing stands out:

4. Fascination. In many churches today there is a strong emphasis upon evangelism – equipping people to share the good news of Jesus. There are programmes to train people for this, to help them deal with the questions of post-modern people, to help them persuade people of Christian truth so they will want to become Christians.

Five years ago I was doing research into evangelism in the church of the first three centuries. And I was puzzled: the early church was growing rapidly, but in early Christian literature there are no training programmes for evangelism and practically no admonitions to evangelism. Why? I concluded, not least through reading what early Christians themselves said, that the church before the conversion of Constantine was growing because it was living in a way that fascinated people. It spoke to their needs; it addressed their questions; and it didn’t so much persuade as fascinate people into new life.15 Early Christians believed that, in Christ, God had begun a vast movement of reconciliation which had incorporated them; so they had renounced violence, converted their swords into ploughshares, and stopped studying war. This was something they had experienced, and that had given them a new way of living.

This was true of the New Testament: the church was “the light to the nations” (Luke 2.32). The church was good news, and it grew by fascina­tion as well as by words, by its creative distinctiveness, by its radiant Jesus-likeness, by its sheer hopefulness (1 Pet 3.15). This is still possible today. It is possible for the church to be, not the last bastion of conservative Britain, but the centre of new thinking in which intractable problems are dealt with in Jesus-like ways. It is possible for churches to grow because the culture of Christian congregations has been shaped by the gospel of peace. It is possible to grow because people discover that the way of Jesus Christ is abundant, and that it leads to new possibilities for all. The rumour gets out: “You know, those house church Christians used to have a reputation for conflict, but they’ve learned to deal with it; they all talk about peacemaking – maybe they could be a resource for us.”

The news of this peace church witness gets out little by little. It is hidden and always partial. Historical change involves little events, seemingly unconnected, which fit into a larger pattern. Our churches’ learning and action, our individual witnesses, our new initiatives fit together and enable something new. We are always sinful and always incomplete – so we point to the grace of Jesus Christ. But we are also captivated by the possibility of newness which we have begun to experience – we point to Jesus Christ, our peacemaker and teacher. And, by God’s unfathomable mercy, we point to the church as a sign of his saving power in history. The peace church is a “nonfinal reconciliation in the midst of struggle”.16 It is on the road with its Lord. As God changes us and as we learn how to be a peace church, we declare confidently and with deep gratitude – God is a God of peace, and God is good!

Alan Kreider is director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. He travels widely to speak on topics of discipleship, worship, mission and peacemaking.

Notes

1. Miroslav Volf: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 213, 256.

2. John Bender: “Reconciliation Begins in Canada,” Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Newsletter, 16 (Jan-Feb 1986), 1-3

3. Walter Wink: When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 62-63.

4. Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 175ff.

5. Ernst Bammel: “Romans 13.” In E. Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (eds.): Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 365.

6. John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster (revised edition) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), ch 10.

7. John Howard Yoder: What Would You Do? A Serious Answer to a Standard Question (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press), 1983.

8. Vaughan Bowie: Coping with Violence: A Guide for the Human Services (Sydney: Karibuni Press, 1989).

9 . Lois Barrett (ed.): A Mennonite Statement and Study on Violence: Study Guide (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1998).

10. John Howard Yoder: When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).

11 . Bread of Life Prayer Bulletin, 17. Information about Bread of Life, and about Christians such as Danilo, is available from jjtosic@eunet.yu.

12. David Cortright, “Ban the Bomb II: A new movement emerges to abolish nuclear weapons”, Sojourners, January-February 1999, 25-26.

13. Marva Dawn: Reaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 4.

14. Robert Warren: Being Human, Being Church (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995), 154.

15 . Alan Kreider: Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom, Alcuin/GROW Joint Liturgical Studies, 32 (Cambridge: Grove Books Ltd, 1995).

16 . Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 109.